54. Robert Ardrey – African Genesis (1961)
Burroughs mentions Ardrey’s book in a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer:
“Have you read African Genesis? Well, there was the aggressive southern ape who survived because he was a killer, and has really in a sense forced his way of life on the whole species. There is only one game and that game is war.”
Four years earlier, a reference to Ardrey’s book kick-starts a routine in the Academy series, with the southern ape transformed into “Homer Mandrill” the “Purple Better One” who’s running for President (“Man, You Voted for a Goddamn Ape”, Mayfair, 3:12, 1968): “what better candidate to continue the noble tradition?”
The book makes a clear impact on Burroughs’ writing and, it appears, also his wider thinking. Ardrey’s book was revolutionary, not so much in creating but certainly in popularising the territorial theory of animal behaviour (as a better explanation than pure sexual selection) and the theory of human origins in African inter-species squabbles among pre-human apes (a theory since validated by archaeological evidence).
“Far from the truth lay the antique assumption that man fathered the weapon. The weapon, instead, had fathered man.”
Ardrey spends the first half of the book drawing evidence from across the animal kingdom for the importance of the territorial imperative. He points out that the abundant evidence for the importance of sex in ape behaviour was all derived from apes in captivity.
“If he seems obsessed with sex, then it is simply because sex is the only instinct for which captivity permits him.”
Energies spent protecting territory, hunting food and finding shelter are all made redundant when the Bonobo is put in captivity. As such, the Bonobo becomes depressed and hypersexual. None of this infamous behaviour has been witnessed in the wild.
The second half of the book then describes the southern ape, and how austolopithecus (a far earlier ancestor than even homo erectus – imagine the first ape on the famous ape-to-man evolution line-up) horded antelope femurs and toothed jaw mandibles in their caves.
Near the caves, the smashed skulls of predators were found, as were bones bearing marks of having the meat cut off by some kind of sawed blade.
At the time of Ardrey’s book’s publication, the scientific establishment refused to accept the obvious conclusion that man’s very first ancestor was a weapon-user, even before he could stand up. Now, I believe most of the book has been confirmed in its generally theories, even if many minor points have since been clarified and corrected.
For Burroughs, the African ape theory fits perfectly into his vision of life. The Hobbesian struggle of all against all is so hardwired into our evolutionary mechanisms that in all points of life is makes constant reappearance.
Notably, this aligns both with Burroughs’ behaviourist views of psychology (in the Palmer interview he moves from Ardrey’s book straight onto Think and Grow Rich, which he viewed as a behaviourist manual), but it also (in the quote above) confirms Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a “war universe”.
[More on Aurobindo soon].
We might see the unusual origin point of the Cities trilogy (the invention of the cartridge gun in the early C18th – over a hundred years early) as a result of Burroughs’ deterministic vision of a mankind that evolved through its weaponry. A view confirmed by Ardrey.
In terms of sex, we might also see his transcendental turn (out of body, space-time travel sex) as both confirming Ardrey’s view that sex is the final channel for man’s energies when held in captivity (thus the hypersexualisation of Burroughs’ characters in the moderns world) and also that, outside of this (in space) sex will cease to be an end in itself, but only part of a wider spiritual/post-human experience.
Finally, Burroughs’ celebration of mutation is also confirmed and condoned by Ardrey who (like we saw in Dent a couple of weeks ago) attributed man’s rapid evolution to his absorption of radioactive cosmic rays, high on the African savannah, and looks forward to a nuclear future where rapid mutation leaves most dead-on-arrival but the survivors in a superpowered state of rapid evolutionary improvement.
Once again we’re left wondering to what extent Burroughs reads and namechecks these books because he’s adopted their views, and to what extent he seeks them out because they agree with what he thinks already. There is an uncanny amount of agreement emerging, even in the science books he reads, around what would normally be seen as crank positions: the celebration of radiation-powered mutations being just one of them.